Exactly one year ago today, one year ago from this very moment as I write this, I was in bed. Not sleeping — oh no, that wasn’t going to happen for at least a few more days — but finally, actually, truly in bed. After a final, all-in push to get things wrapped up, the hours were ticking down to the worldwide release of State of Decay, a game we’d been working on for two-and-a-half years; a game we’d poured our hearts and souls into, bled over, fought for, and pulled kicking and screaming into existence despite its design breaking almost every game design rule in the book.
On that Tuesday night, June 4, 2013, I was in bed waiting for Judgement Day. The game would start rolling out on the Xbox Life network at 2:00 AM local time. Scarier still, the review embargo lifted at midnight, so reviews could start hitting within the hour.
I, and my colleagues at Undead Labs, had no idea what was to happen over the next 24 hours. We knew we’d built something unique: a game that broke rules about permadeath, multiple avatars, and offline progression; a game that blended RPG, third-person action, and survival simulation in a manner that caused our publisher to scratch their head through most of its development (and kudos to them for standing by it). We were proud that we’d built something new, and grateful we’d had the opportunity to do so; but there’s a difference between being proud of what you make, and making something people actually want. We’d soon find out whether people wanted a zombie-survival simulation in which your starting character was very likely to die in the first hour of play. (Ah, Marcus, we loved you, man…)
I distracted myself for a few hours by watching Zombieland for the fifth or sixth time. Not really genre canon, but still a great movie. Zombieland came out in fall 2009, exactly 12 days before the foundation of Undead Labs. At that point the seeds of ‘Class3’, the codename for the game that became State of Decay, were well planted, but Zombieland focused on human relationships over a period of weeks and months, and really made me think about how survival is not just about food, water, and shelter (and bullets), but also about your emotional health. Having good friends may not be more important than avoiding being eaten, but it’s definitely up there somewhere around ‘sanitation’ and ‘tooth brushing’ on the long-term survival priority list.
Anyway, the movie ended, and midnight hit. Judgement Day was upon us. I waited. I felt like my whole life was on the line, and in some ways, it was. At about 12:15, Sanya sent an IM with a link, that simply read, “IGN review is in”. I stared at it for a long time. IGN is one of the big guns, and if their reviewer got his Marcus killed and rage quit an hour in, we’d be toast.
I finally mustered the courage to click the link, scroll to the bottom, and open my eyes.
8.9 — Great. “For many, State of the Decay is the zombie game they’ve always wanted.”
I couldn’t believe it. I read the entire article, and they loved what we loved. They understood how permadeath made your decisions meaningful, how playing multiple characters made your community your primary investment, and how other risky decisions were made in service to our goal of creating a true survival simulation. I was floating — although that was probably more from lack of sleep than anything, but the combination was awesome.
The next day was like a waking dream. The game rolled out across the world starting at 2:00 AM as planned, and by the time I went into the office at 6:00 AM, we’d surpassed 25,000 paid downloads. By noon we hit 50,000, by the start of our release party at 4:00 we’d passed 100,000, and by the end of the day we settled in at around 135,000. It was a record-breaking release (only Minecraft, a game with a huge existing fan base, had sold faster), and would set the pace for the 500K and 1M thresholds to come over the next few months. State of Decay went on to become the fastest selling original game in Xbox Live Arcade history, and is now among the top sellers of all time.
Over the next year we released numerous free updates and two DLC expansions to the game: State of Decay: Breakdown, which focuses on the simulation mechanics of the game to offer an ever increasing survival challenge, and the just-released State of Decay: Lifeline, which returns to the narrative focus of State of Decay and offers a new map, new mission types, and a whole new military-themed story to experience.
State of Decay continues to sell well a year after release, but we’re just getting started. In January we announced a multi-year, multi-title partnership with Microsoft Studios to continue development of the State of Decay franchise. State of Decay was a great first step, but our ambitions for where we take it from here are much higher, and Microsoft is ready to step up and work with us to make those ambitions a reality.
Those of you who have followed Undead Labs from our early days probably know where all this is going, and I won’t disappoint you. The success of State of Decay, and the opportunity we have to take it even further, is 100% because of you. Not just because you’re customers, but because you’re gamers. Real gamers. Not just casual fans of the latest big-budget shooter or pre-scripted action adventure (although those can be awfully fun too), but gamers who are passionate enough to try something new. You met the unexpected with a smile rather than a frown. Your Marcus died, but you didn’t rage quit (or if you did, you came back the next day after you cooled off), because you were willing to embrace a game with real consequences. You enabled us to take risks and push the boundaries of game design in the pursuit of new gameplay experiences.
More than merely being thankful to you for making State of Decay a success, I want you to know that it’s a genuine pleasure to make games for you guys. You’ve fueled us up over the past year, and now we’re off building the future of State of Decay…and we sure as hell don’t intend to let you down.
On behalf of the entire team at Undead Labs, thank you.